Full Name:

Georges Méliès

Occupation / Title:

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Date of birth:

08/12/1861

Date of death:

21/01/1938

Birthplace:

Paris, France

Biography


George Méliès was one of the earliest filmmakers, and one of the few who experimented with the vast trick and illusionist possibilities of film, inventing a wide range of cinematic techniques. These techniques include substitution splices, multiple exposure, time lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted colour. He is incredibly important to the history of early film, and created several crucial early films.

Career outline


Méliès was born to Jean-Louis-Stanislas Méliès and Johannah-Catherine Schuering, who jointly owned a shoe factory in Paris. Together they had three children, Henri, Gaston and Georges. By the time Méliès was born, the family was very well off and could afford to send him to top schools. He attended Lycée Michelet and then the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. Even very early on, Méliès had a strong interest in both intellectual and creative pursuits. He began to develop a passion for building puppet theatres and marionettes.

He learned to sew when he took over the shoe factory with his brothers, which further helped him in his creative pursuits in stage and puppetry. He performed a mandatory military service then moved to London, where he worked as a clerk for a family friend. While in London he further developed his passion for stage magic and illusion. He discovered and regularly visited The Egyptian Hall, run by John Nevil Maskelyne. The Egyptian Hall had formerly been used as a museum and art exhibition hall, but by the mid-19th century began to be used more for public lectures and popular entertainment. Over the next few decades, it became a venue with entertainment highly associated with magic and spiritualism, becoming known as “England’s Home of Mystery” by the time of Maskelyne and Cooke’s 30-year run of the hall.

Upon his return to Paris, Méliès wanted to enroll in École des Beaux-Arts for painting, but did not have the finances to do so, so went back into the family business. He married against the desires of his family, and chose to marry the daughter of a family friend, Eugénie Génin. Together they had two children, André and Georgette.

Méliès continued to visit stage shows and illusionary performances. He often visited the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, founded by the famous magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. He also began taking lessons from the magician Emile Voisin. Méliès increasingly wanted to become a stage magician, and in 1888 (when he was 27), he took over Houdin’s theatre using his share of money from the sale of the shoe factory and part of his wife’s dowry. The theatre was fantastically equipped, but needed a serious revival in terms of the performances and illusions that were being staged. His taking over of the theatre ushered in a new era for the building, and a rejuvenation of the illusions to form an entirely new host of performances that were more technical, comedic, melodramatic and elaborate. He worked as costume designer, set designer, director, actor, writer and magician. These included more technically difficult versions of old tricks (such as disembodiments and talking heads), automatons, magic lantern shows, snowfalls and thunderstorms. When he took over the theatre, he kept on the chief mechanic Eugène Calmels and performers such as Jehanne d’Alcy. As he continued to improve the theatre, he drew such famous performers as Buatier De Kolta, Duperrey, and Raynaly. At this time he also drew political cartoons for a newspaper called La Griffe, which was edited by his cousin Adolphe Méliès. He was also appointed president of the Chambre Syndicale des Artistes Illusionistes.

Before the rise of film, magic and illusory arts were incredibly popular. Within this form of entertainment, however, and as a precursor to the invention of film, was a specific delight in and focus on optical arts: this included the magic lantern shows, lighting tricks, and optical illusions. Méliès was so strong in this field that he was invited to see the first visual demo of cinematograph/film by the Lumière Brothers, early inventors of the moving picture.

Immediately, Méliès wanted to become a part of filmmaking, and tried to purchase a camera from the Lumière Brothers. The Lumière Brothers, however, wished to guard their invention and refused. So Méliès bought a similar machine from one of the many European inventors trying to replicate the machine used by the Lumières. He went to England to buy an “Animatograph” from Robert W. Paul, as well as several short films, and began showing them at Théâtre Robert-Houdin.

By 1896, Méliès began to experiment with and modify the animatograph, such that it could be used as a film camera. Since there were no places in Paris capable of developing the necessary film, he bought unperforated film from England and learned how to do so himself. In September 1896, Méliès patented his invention with Lucien Korsten and Lucien Reulos, calling it the Kinètographe Robert-Houdin. The next year, however, Méliès bought a better camera when it appeared on the market.

As soon as he was able, Méliès was making moving pictures and exploring the medium to a high degree. He even founded a film company at the end of 1896, with Reulos, called the Star Film Company. His explorations were all infused with his experiences within the theatre, experimenting with how film and cinematic effects could elevate and bring new meaning to the performances and illusions he had perfected on stage. One example is that of the trick of “The Vanishing Lady,” which on stage involved several different tricks in order to make a woman sitting on a chair disappear (often with a cleverly hidden trap door). Méliès produced a film version, using a substitution splice to remove the woman and make her instantly disappear. This trick, and several others, were said to have been discovered by accident. In this case, the camera jammed during filming and produced the startling substitution effect of one actor or moving object for another.

Several of these early films mimic (or entirely reproduce) early Lumière films, such as Méliès’ Playing Cards (1896). While almost all of the Lumière films posture themselves as a scientific pursuit, however, Méliès takes a clear and separate direction into that of the artistic, entertaining and spectacular.

In 1896, Méliès also built a studio in Montreuil, just outside of Paris. He began making an incredible number of films there, using backgrounds and actor costumes/makeup completely in tones of grey so as to reproduce it perfectly on black and white film. He began splitting his time evenly between the Théâtre Robert-Houdin and the studio, spending nearly every moment creating and producing films and performances. Though he tried to turn the theatre into movie theatre, they continued to be quite separate entertainment entities. As his prestige and popularity grew, he further funded his Montreuil studio to provide even more resources for filmmaking.

His films, even early on, encompassed almost every genre: historical, comedic, tragic, fantasy, racy “stag films” and advertisements. He began to push further and make quite elaborate films in 1898, such as Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine”, The Famous Box Trick, and The Astronomer’s Dream. He played around with time, superposition, and reverse shooting to use his own body multiple times within a scene, or to play with disembodiment. For example, his 1899 film Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb used several techniques to evoke the resurrection of Cleopatra’s body.

That same year, Méliès created a film with multiple scenes and a large cast of 35 actors, based on Perrault’s Cinderella. The film enjoyed wide success across Europe and the United States. Filmmakers like Thomas Edison resented this success from foreign filmmakers, and tried to duplicate the film negatives. Méliès fought back with a trade union to defend his films and those of other foreign filmmakers, being the first president of the trade union Chambre Syndicale des Editeurs Cinématographiques.

With the turn of the century, Méliès found continued success, completing several films many of which were based off of fairy tales. He also began to experiment with the ability to change one object’s size in a film, particularly as seen in The Man With a Rubber Head (1902).

That year also saw the creation of Méliès’ most famous film, A Trip to the Moon, based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. Méliès himself plays Professor Barbenfouillis, who leads a space expedition in a rocket to the moon, which hits the man in the moon in the eye. The expedition explores the moon then falls asleep – when they awake, they are being attacked and captured by moon aliens. They manage to escape to their spaceship and go back to earth, where they are commended as heroes. The film made Méliès incredibly well known across Europe and the US, especially as several filmmakers distributed illegal copies of the film. The problem was so widespread that Méliès opened a Star Films office in New York. He put his brother Gaston in charge of the office, with the assistance of Lucien Reulos.

He made three more incredibly well known films, The Coronation of Edward VII (1902), Gulliver’s Travels Among the Lilliputians and the Giants (1902), and The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903). He continued to make films based on a wide variety of written works, such as The Damnation of Faust (1903), Faust and Marguerite (1903), and The Barber of Seville (1904). In 1904 he made The Impossible Voyage, and expanded and more elaborate film similar to that of Journey to the Moon.

Méliès was then asked to create several new special effects films specifically for theatre revue, first by Folies Bergère director Victor de Cottens. Méliès created An Adventurous Automobile Trip, which was shown at the theatre then sold as a film by Star Films. This intersected with a grand lawsuit from Edison against Star Films and several other companies, which Star Films ended up not having to defend against. De Cottons asked Méliès to collaborate with him on more theatrical revue films, creating Le Voyage dans l’espace (The Space Trip) and Le Cyclone (The Cyclone). For the 100th birthday of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin in 1905, Méliès created and performed the first new magic trick for the theatre in a very long time. The same year, he expanded the Montreuil studio again and produced films such as The Palace of the Arabian Nights and Rip’s Dream. In 1906, he created more versions of Faust: The Merry Frolics of Satan and The Witch.

Méliès continued to produce new films and stage acts throughout 1907, but critics began to signal his decline as a prominent filmmaker.

In 1908, Thomas Edison attempted to control the production of films by merging together several film companies into one conglomerate over which he would be president. Méliès’ Star Film Company joined and reached the required minimum film production for the first year. During this time, Méliès produced Humanity Through the Ages, telling the history of humans through the ages.

Early the following year, Méliès stopped producing films and presided over the first meeting of the International Filmmakers Congress in Paris. Through this experience, he and other filmmakers decided to challenge Edison’s monopoly over film. Their first move was to lease films for four months instead of selling them outright to Edison via the conglomerate.

In 1909, Méliès began making films again. Gaston Méliès also moved the Méliès Manufacturing Company to Fort Lee, New Jersey. He then established the Star Ranch Studio in Texas, where he began producing Western films.

In 1910, Méliès signed a contract with Charles Pathé in which Pathé would own the deed to Méliès’ house and Montreuil studio, as well as the distribution and editing rights to all of Méliès’ films in exchange for a large sum of money. Méliès produced two films using this money, Baron Munchausen’s Dream and The Diabolical Church Window (both released in 1911), which completely failed financially. Though he kept making ambitious films, these newest ones (post contract) kept failing, so Pathé decided to start exercising his right to edit. The edits did not help the success of the films, so in 1912 Méliès broke the contract. Though a moratorium announced at the beginning of the war in 1914 prevented Pathé from taking his home and studio, Méliès was bankrupt and could not produce any films. The next year, his wife died. With the closing of the theatre due to the war, Méliès left Paris with both of his children. The army turned the Montreuil studio into a hospital, and melted several Star Film films for their materials. Méliès and his children turned the second stage set into a theatre, performing shows until 1923. That year, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was torn down and Pathé took over Star Films, in response to which Méliès burned a huge number of his negatives, sets and costumes.

Méliès became a sweets and toy salesman, working hard each day to ensure his living. In 1925, he married his longtime mistress Jeanne d’Alcy. In 1929, a retrospective of his work was shown at the Salle Pleyel. This renewed interest in his films and work spread, and he was soon awarded the honour of being made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1931. The next year, The Cinema Society arranged for him to live with d’Alcy and his granddaughter at La Maison du Retraite du Cinéma, the retirement home for members of the film industry. The young directors Henri Langlois and Georges Franju rented a building on the retirement property to store their film prints, and made Méliès the conservator of the prints. This building would become the Cinémathèque Française.

In late 1937, Méliès was admitted to the Léopold Bellan Hospital in Paris, where he died of cancer the following year.

References:


http://www.melies.eu/

http://www.classichorror.free-online.co.uk/TML/melies.htm


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